Sensitive Australian two-hander centres on an immigrant taxi driver and his frail elderly passenger 


Source: Busby Projects


Dir/scr. Madeleine Blackwell. Australia. 2023. 81mins

Conversation drives Damage as it spends a night in a taxi on Adelaide’s streets, an on-the-road two-hander between an asylum-seeker cabbie and his 88-year-old passenger. Filled with poetic dialogue, this sensitive and stirring Australian drama from theatre veteran and actor Madeleine Blackwell is equally portrait and statement, honing in on two strangers fighting to control their lives while discovering that they have more in common than they realise.

 Not about narrative surprises but rather emotional depths

Damage initially screened at the 2020 Adelaide Film Festival in work-in-progress form. Having made its UK premiere at the London Film Festival this year, the finished version opened in Australia in November, Blackwell’s themes remain as topical and important now as during the five-year process to bring the self- and crowd-funded independent feature to fruition, which should endear the film to further festivals. Programmers for human rights-focused lineups would be wise to take note.

One of Damage’s leads is Ali Al Jenabu, an asylum seeker from Iraq who was imprisoned for four years in Abu Ghain under Saddam Hussein’s regime and the subject of Robin De Crespigny’s award-winning 2012 non-fiction book The People Smuggler. Here, he proves a charismatic and naturalistic presence as the film’s striving Ali, who has spent five years in Australia largely in immigration detention and a mere week behind the wheel of a friend’s taxi. Borrowing an ID, lacking a visa and anxious about attracting attention, the character has strict instructions to clean the shared-access vehicle and make his swap-over time when a fare enters through the back door. Esther (the late Imelda Bourke, a jazz singer and Blackwell’s mother) implores him to drive; that she cannot recall where she wants to go bothers him, but not her.

With its two only on-screen figures both non-professionals, and the filmmaker encouraging improvisation with her actors drawing upon their own backgrounds, Damage’s conversational rhythms ebb and flow authentically. Each line feels genuine, as does each loaded silence, even when the chatter is at its most lyrical, discussion unspooling almost as a freeform spoken-word duet. “I can’t remember,” Bourke starts in one especially touching moment — “and I can’t forget anything,” finishes Jenabi.

Against protocol, Ali hits the road as his fare tries to recollect where she is so desperate to flee her care home to get to. Both in the film’s tense early moments where Esther rankles at Ali’s questions, spouts racist attitudes and lectures about Australia’s way of life, and as the dynamic between them gradually softens, Damage’s central duo encapsulate Blackwell’s big themes. While realisations and understandings in odd-couple road trips is a well-worn trope, nothing here coasts along an easy route – as emphatically made plain in a haunting carwash scene where PTSD refuses to be rinsed away.

With a title to be taken literally, the solidly crafted Damage is not about narrative surprises but rather emotional depths. Each losing their agency as well as the place they call home, Blackwell’s protagonists come to see their individual struggles reflected in each other – a journey that’s no less affecting for being expected. Amid claustrophobic in-car lensing, editor Raphael Rivera splices in bird’s-eye surveillance clips of streets and airports, plus WikiLeaks footage of the July 2007 Baghdad airstrikes, known as Collateral Murder, in a touch that broadens the context of Ali and Esther’s plights. The world around them is not only always watching, but always doling out stress, heartbreak and trauma — and while talking about it is not easy, it is vital.

Production company: Busby Projects

Contact: Busby Projects,

Producers: Madeleine Blackwell, Sharon Cleary, Peter Thurmer

Cinematography: Roger Dowling, Rebecca Duncker, Hugh Freytag, Paul J. Warren

Editing: Raphael Rivera

Music: Peter Knight, Mohammad Ameen Marrdan, Kate Reid, Jem Savage

Main cast: Ali Al Jenabi, Imelda Bourke